- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2020

COROLLA, N.C. (AP) - Visitors to the Outer Banks can now climb the Currituck Beach Lighthouse - albeit while wearing masks and trying to maintain some social distancing.

The key to the lighthouse’s reopening on Labor Day - it is the only one of North Carolina’s seven this summer to allow climbers in - is its 145-year-old wooden windows.

Normally, two windows on one side of the 162-foot tower and three on the other side, remain closed except on hot days. Those and others near the bottom are now open all day, every day.

Doors at the bottom and top also remain open and fans are running.

“It feels really good to have it open again,” said lighthouse manager Meghan Agresto.

Agresto had been working for weeks to make sure climbers could return to the lighthouse as soon as North Carolina eased restrictions earlier this month. A primary precaution was to not have people within an enclosed space in close proximity for more than 15 minutes.

The open windows and a quick passing on the steps fall within the rules, she said.

Agresto calculated capacity as if the lighthouse is a single room where a maximum of 25 people are allowed. Then another eight people can stand at the open balcony up top with proper spacing, bringing the maximum to 33.

“We’re taking it slowly,” Agresto said. “We’re not trying to hit the maximum possible.”

On its first day back open, more than 300 people ascended the 220 steps to the top, not many fewer than a typical daily count. About 100,000 climb it each year.

On Sept. 9, a long, spaced line of people waited on the brick walkway leading to the front door. Yellow lines were 6 feet apart to help visitors maintain some distance.

Phillip and Lyn Harris of Hillsborough, North Carolina, had just descended. They didn’t know it was open until they visited a nearby park and saw people at the top.

“We said, ’Hey, let’s go,” according to Phillip.

The wind was blowing strong from the outdoor gallery at the peak. They could see miles in each direction, the ocean to the east and the Currituck Sound to the west.

“It was great,” Phillip said.

Kyle Ayres was in line to climb the Currituck lighthouse for the first time. He had visited the Outer Banks from his Baltimore home many times with family and climbed other Outer Banks lighthouses before.

“I have always had a fascination with lighthouses,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised this one was open.”

Masked staff try to make sure a few minutes pass between each group that enters the lighthouse. They also are careful to keep a count of who comes and goes and frequently take time to wipe down the metal handrails with sanitizer.

Cost to climb is $10 for those 4 years old and up. Younger children are free, but must be in a carrier to stop hands from touching every stairway brace.

Lighthouse keepers used to get many gallons of oil delivered frequently to burn in the lamps.

“Now we get massive amounts of sanitizer,” Agresto quipped.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is operated by the Outer Banks Conservationists, a private, nonprofit organization. Other Outer Banks lighthouses are owned by the National Park Service and remain closed.

Old Baldy and Oak Island lighthouses, also operated by nonprofits, remained closed to climbers, according to their websites.

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